In the early 1990s, American television was filled with lovable dorks: Urkel on “Family Matters,” Carlton on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Milhouse on “The Simpsons” and, of course, Screech on NBC’s “Saved by the Bell.”
Dustin Diamond, the curly-haired and wide-eyed young actor who played Samuel “Screech” Powers, was not exactly the star of “Saved by the Bell,” but he was the Saturday morning sitcom’s breakout character — and like those other small-screen nerds, he helped define an era of family-friendly TV.
Screech remained a fan favorite long after the original incarnation of “Saved by the Bell” went off the air, living on in goofy internet memes and the haze of millennial nostalgia.
But the subsequent decades were not as kind to Diamond, who died Monday at 44, weeks after a diagnosis of cancer was announced. In recent years, Diamond spoke candidly about his professional setbacks and personal struggles, painting a downcast portrait of life after youthful fame.
“The hardest thing about being a child star is giving up your childhood. You don’t get a childhood, really,” Diamond said in a 2013 “Where Are They Now? interview with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. “You’re a performer. You have to know your lines and rehearse and practice, making sure you’re the funniest and the best you can be, because if you weren’t funny, you could be replaced.”
Diamond struggled to find work. He played Screech for more than a decade, between the original “Saved by the Bell” and its spinoff shows, and he found himself typecast in the entertainment industry. Could viewers ever see him as anything but the cartoonish geek of Bayside High School?
“I didn’t know what to do,” Diamond said in the interview with OWN. “It was hard to get work that wasn’t Screech-clone stuff.”
Diamond made appearances on game shows and reality shows like “Celebrity Fit Club” and “Celebrity Boxing 2,” where he squared off against fellow actor Ron Palillo, best known as the proto-Screech character Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Diamond occasionally made cameos in movies, such as David Spade’s “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.”
He also appeared in a sex tape in 2006. He said he did it for cash — Paris Hilton had reportedly made more than $10 million on her sex tape — and eventually expressed regret, telling The Associated Press: “I kind of wish I hadn’t gone exactly that route.” (He later claimed he had used a body double.)
For every young performer who transitions gracefully into adulthood, many others spend their later years wrestling with substance abuse, mental health challenges, financial woes and legal dramas. Diamond, for his part, dealt with serious personal issues after his time in the limelight.
He filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and five years later he was reportedly selling $15 T-shirts to stave off foreclosure on his house in Port Washington, Wisconsin. He told the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal that his parents had spent the money he earned on “Saved,” and that he had made massive tax miscalculations.
Diamond ran into legal troubles, too. He was arrested and convicted for his role in a 2014 fight at a Wisconsin bar, where he stabbed a patron in the armpit with a switchblade. He was placed in a work release program after beginning his four-month sentence. He was released early for good behavior.
“We are aware that Dustin is not considered reputable by most,” Roger Paul, the actor’s spokesman, said in a statement announcing his death Monday.
“He’s had a history of mishaps, of unfortunate events,” Paul added. “We want the public to understand that he was not intentionally malevolent. He — much like the rest of those who act out and behave poorly — had undergone a great deal of turmoil and heartache.”
At least one of those mishaps, in the actor’s own telling, was his 2009 tell-all book, “Behind the Bell,” in which he made claims about the alleged sex-and-drugs atmosphere behind the scenes of the show.
Diamond later expressed regret about that chapter in his life, too, saying the book had been ghostwritten and his recollections had been exaggerated. In a 2016 interview with former co-star and “Extra” host Mario Lopez, he said he had not seen most of the cast since he was a teenager and asked for their “forgiveness” over the book.
He added that he hoped to continue acting: “It’s all I know.”
“I’m proud of the work that I’ve done when I’ve done it. It’s just, how to you come off such a phenom role of this Screech character and break out of that mold and do something different?
“I’d audition, and every single time they’d say, ‘Hey, we loved it, but we saw too much Screech in it.’ Well, I can’t change my bone structure, what do you want me to do?”